He sits next to a bookcase, flicking through titles long out of print. Like a linguistic trawlerman, or a miner panning for phrases, he pulls out obscure terms and brings them to light. There’s ‘hunch-weather’ or ‘weather cold enough to make people walk with hunched shoulders’ – taken from The Vocabulary of East Anglia (1830). Or ‘recumbentibus’, ‘a powerful or knockout blow’, from A Dialogue of Proverbs in the English Tongue (1546).
There is ‘cosmognosis’ from the 1882 New Sydenham Society’s Lexicon of Medicine and the Allied Sciences, meaning ‘the natural instinct that tells a creature when to migrate’, as well as ‘scurryfunge’ from Maine Lingo (1950): ‘A hasty tidying of the house between the time you see a neighbour coming and the time she knocks on the door’. There’s an old English dialect word for the shadows cast by trees – ‘mogshade’ – and ‘popple’, a suitably joyful word meaning ‘to tumble around like the bubbles in a boiling liquid’.
Now, Paul Anthony Jones has compiled 366 ‘forgotten words’ in his new book The Cabinet of Linguistic Curiosities. It has a different phrase for every day of the year (including 29 February) – with entries ranging from ‘ambilaevous’, or ‘equally clumsy in both hands’, to ‘stirrup-cup’, ‘one last drink before a departure’. While it offers titillation for the curious mind, it also serves a more noble purpose – retrieving words from languishing unread and unspoken.
In September, academics in Britain uncovered 30 words ‘lost’ from the English language: researchers spent three months looking through old dictionaries to find them, in the hope they could bring the words back into modern conversations. For Jones, who blogs and tweets under the name Haggard Hawks, it has been a lifetime of word geekery. “I’ve been obsessed with language ever since I was a kid,” he tells BBC Culture. “I got a big illustrated kids’ dictionary when I was eight or nine – I got it for Christmas off my grandparents – I just sat and read it cover to cover, like you would a normal book. I was absolutely hooked.”
Since then, Jones has made it his mission to rescue unused expressions from extinction. “I spend my days piling through books like The Language of American Popular Entertainment and pulling out words I find interesting,” he says. “I’m taking words from obscure English dictionaries, but also slang dictionaries and dialect dictionaries – there are all these goldmines of language that never really get tapped into, so anything that puts that out to a wider audience has got to be good.”
“I like finding words that fill in a gap – there’s one called ‘frowst’ – it’s an old 19th-Century schoolboy slang word for ‘extra time spent in bed on a Sunday’. The fact that anyone thought to come up with that word is great – it’s something that everybody needs,” says Jones. “A lot of them are dialect – I found one, ‘shivviness’, in an English dialect dictionary; it means ‘the uncomfortable feeling of wearing new underwear’ and comes from ‘shiv’, which is an old Yorkshire dialect word for a splinter or a loose thread. It’s that idea of something being itchy.”
There are words that have an onomatopoeic appeal, like ‘jingle-boy’- ‘a rich man’, or someone who has enough coins in their pocket to jingle as they walk. And others that trip off the tongue. “I love finding words that are just beautiful as well as strange,” says Jones. ‘Mamamouchi’ is a delight to say out loud, and has an equally delectable meaning: ‘someone who believes themselves more important than they really are’.
Jones also collects made-up terms, such as ‘beaglepuss’ – the name for those novelty glasses with a fake nose, eyebrows and moustache attached (a nonsense word invented by the company selling them). And he includes imagined science, with a word introduced in 1890 to foretell a futuristic world where messages could be sent by radio – an ‘aerogram’.
His word posts offer a kind of antidote to social media. “On the one hand, I’m pulling these words out of obscurity and rescuing them from the murkier corners of the dictionary – then through Twitter, which is one of the most modern things going, at the opposite end of the dictionary from the 19th-Century scholars, people are using them. It seems to fill a niche.”
BBC Culture has picked out 26 of the most delightful terms from The Cabinet of Linguistic Curiosities: our alphabet of obscure words is below.
All definitions below taken from The Cabinet of Linguistic Curiosities, published by Elliott & Thompson
Agerasia (pronounced ‘adge-uh-ray-zee-ah’)
A more youthful appearance than one’s true age (derived from a Greek word for ‘eternal youth’).
Based on the same template as ‘light-year’, one ‘beard-second’ is the approximate length a man’s beard hair grows in one second: five nanometres. Other niche units of measurement include the ‘smoot’, named after chairman of the American National Standards Institute, Oliver Smoot, following his 1958 attempt to gauge the length of the Harvard Bridge using his body as the measuring tape.
A period of intense work or creative activity undertaken to meet a deadline. Coined at the Ecole de Beaux-Arts in Paris where, in the mid-19th Century, architecture students transported their projects (sculptures and scale models) in a small wheeled cart, or ‘charette’. Their last-minute flurry to meet deadlines at the end of term became known as working ‘en charette’ – ‘in the cart’.
The leader of a gang of criminals. ‘Dimber’ has meant ‘cunning’ or ‘wily’ in criminal slang since the mid-17th Century – and ‘damber’ meant ‘rascal’. Francis Grose’s Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1785) defines a ‘dimber-damber’ as ‘A top man, or prince among the canting crew, also the chief rogue of the gang, or the compleatest cheat.’
A sudden and unexpected fortuitous event. Coined in 1944 by JRR Tolkien, who defined it as ‘the sudden happy turn in a story which pierces you with a joy that brings tears’. The Lord of the Rings author was an expert etymologist, and worked on the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED).
Simply meaning ‘signpost’, ‘finger-post’ was also an 18th-Century slang nickname for a parson according to the English lexicographer Francis Grose, aiming a dig at the hypocritical behaviour of some clergymen. His definition: ‘A parson: so called, because he points out a way to others which he never goes himself.’
A saxophone, according to a guide to ‘the language of swing’ that accompanied Benny Goodman’s 1937 album The Camel Caravan. Other jazz-age terms included ‘grunt-horn’ (a tuba), ‘agony-pipe’ (a clarinet) and ‘paperman’ (a musician who cannot improvise and can only play from sheet music).
A duel to the death. Although dating from the mid 19th Century in English, ‘holmgang’ has its origins in an ancient Old Norse term, ‘holmganga’, that literally means ‘a going to the island’ – a reference to the kind of isolated site where many ancient Scandinavian duels would once have been fought.
An affectionate term for Morse code, used in the early 1900s. ‘Umpty’ had been in use since the mid 19th Century as a slang term for an unspecified or seemingly impossibly large number (which eventually gave us the word umpteen in the early 1900s). To that was attached the apparently random prefix ‘iddy’ to form ‘iddy-umpty’, a word intended perhaps to imitate the stuttering sound of a Morse code transmission, and to allude to its seemingly countless stream of ‘dits’ and ‘dahs’.
The word jeopardy was borrowed into English from French in the early 14th Century, and derives from a jeu parti, or literally a ‘divided game’ – that is, one with equal or uncertain odds. By the late 1300s, however, jeopardy had inspired a derivative verb in English, jeopard, which was variously used to mean ‘to expose to risk’, ‘to hazard or imperil’, ‘to venture’ or, in the sense that concerns us today, ‘to stake a bet’.
A hand of cards containing little of any real value. Its name dates from the late 1800s and is thought to come from the earlier use of ‘kelter’ to mean ‘rubbish’ or ‘refuse’. Another card term is derived from legendary frontiersman James ‘Wild Bill’ Hickok, who was shot at point-blank range in the back of the head while playing poker in August 1867. His killer had lost heavily against Hickok at cards the previous day; the hand of cards Hickok was holding at the time of his death – both the aces and eights of spades and clubs, plus an unknown hole card – ultimately became known as the ‘dead man’s hand’.
A heat haze – the shimmering, undulating appearance of the air above a hot surface. Derived from the macabre death of a papal archbishop in 3rd-Century Rome: after the Emperor Valerian called for all Christian senators to be stripped of their titles and assets, and all Christian clergymen to be arrested, the archdeacon in charge of the Pope’s treasury was given three days to collect the church’s wealth for the Roman state. Instead Lawrence gave it away, and was sentenced to be roasted to death.
Fictitious entries added to a book to set a trap for would-be plagiarists are known as ‘nihilartikels’ (literally ‘nothing-articles’) or ‘mountweazels’, the name of an Ohio-born fountain designer and photographer named Lillian Virginia Mountweazel who was listed in the 1975 edition of the New Columbia Encyclopedia. Despite her renowned photographs of rural American mailboxes and her tragic death in an explosion while on an assignment for Combustibles magazine, Ms Mountweazel never actually existed.
In 1891, the writer Lewis Carroll invented the nyctograph, a device consisting of a flat board with a series of squares cut into it that could be used, letter by letter, to guide his pen as he wrote in the dark. Carroll even invented an encrypted alphabet just for the purpose: “I tried rows of square holes,” he wrote, “but the letters were still apt to be illegible. Then I said to myself, ‘Why not invent a square alphabet, using only dots at the corners, and lines along the sides?’” Carroll kept the device inside a notebook in his bed. “If I wake and think of something I wish to record,” he later explained, “[I] draw from under the pillow a small memorandum book containing my nyctograph, write a few lines, or even a few pages . . . replace the book, and go to sleep again.”
From Yorkshire dialect, meaning ‘weak as an adult due to a sheltered or pampered childhood’. Oaf here is either a corruption of ‘half’ (in the sense that a weak adult was only ‘half-rocked’, or improperly cared for as a child), or ‘elf ’ (derived from an old piece of folklore that claims elves would steal human children and replace them with their own ‘changelings’). Also from the dialect a ‘Yorkshire mile’: ‘a proverbially long distance’.
The irrational belief that everyone around you is a traitor; the unnerving feeling that you’re surrounded by people out to get you. Coined in the late 1800s, it derives from the Latin verb ‘prodere’, meaning ‘to betray’ – as do the likes of ‘prodition’ (a 15th-Century word for treason or treachery), ‘proditor’ (a traitor) and ‘proditorious’ (an adjective describing traitorous or perdious actions, or someone liable to give away secrets).
Long before it came to be attached to money, a coin was originally a block forming the corner of a building, or else one of the wedge-shaped stones forming part of an archway. Coign or quoin is still an architectural term – used to refer to angles or corners, or to the cornerstones and keystones, of buildings. And from quoin came ‘quinie’, a dialect word for a cornerstone, or the first stone laid in erecting buildings.
According to the Book of Genesis, the raven was the first animal released from Noah’s Ark after the Great Flood. Although accounts of the story differ, the raven is typically said not to have returned to Noah immediately, but instead ‘went forth to and fro until the waters were dried up from off the earth’. When the raven failed to return, Noah released a dove, which flew back to the Ark with an olive leaf in its bill to show that the floodwaters had finally abated. This episode is the origin of ‘raven-messenger’, an ancient expression referring to someone – and, in particular, someone bearing news or an important message – who does not return when required, or arrives too late to be of any use.
A crazy or impractical idea that seems ingenious when you’re drunk. Other drinking terms include ‘pot-valou, a term from the first half of the 17th Century for courage or rash boldness induced by drink, and ‘pot-proof-armour’ – coined by the Scots writer and translator Thomas Urquhart in 1653 to refer to drink as a source of courage.
According to the English Dialect Dictionary (Vol VI, 1905), to twankle is ‘to twang with the fingers on a music instrument’. Absentmindedly strumming or playing an instrument is also known as twiddling, twangling, tootling, noodling, plunking, thrummling and tudeling (the latter of which, perhaps rather aptly, has its origins in a German word, dudeln, meaning ‘to perform badly’).
A neighbour whose house is on fire – one of the more niche words in English, alongside ‘spanghew’, ‘to inflate a frog and bowl it across the surface of a pond’, ‘feague’, ‘to insert a live eel up a horse’s backside in order to make it appear more sprightly’, and ‘rum-snoozer’, ‘a drunk who falls asleep in a brothel’ (all taken from the English Dialect Dictionary, 1905).
Vesper is the Latin name for the Evening Star (which is, in fact, not a star but the planet Venus). The name of the sixth of the seven canonical hours of the Christian church, vespers, derives from the same root, as do a host of less familiar words like ‘vespertilio’ (a 17th-Century word for a bat), ‘vesperate’ (‘to darken, to become night’), and ‘vespering’, an adjective describing anything heading west or flying towards the sunset – coined by the poet and author Thomas Hardy in his 1910 poem The Year’s Awakening.
A blend of want and quantum, ‘wantum’ was coined by Samuel Beckett to mean ‘a quantifiable deficiency or desire’. Other words invented by the Nobel Prize-winning Irish playwright include ‘vermigrade’ – ‘moving in a worm-like manner’ – and ‘panpygoptosis’, strung together from Greek elements meaning ‘all’ (pan), ‘rump’ (pygo), ‘sight’ (opto) and ‘condition’ (osis), coined in his novel Murphy to mean ‘the condition of having short legs’.
A scolding, quarrelsome woman, named after the wife of the Greek philosopher Socrates, who was referred to by one of his students as ‘the most difficult woman not just of this generation … but of all the generations past and yet to come’. While the reasons for that reputation are unclear, Xanthippe’s name ended up in the dictionary as an allusive reference to a henpecking, argumentative spouse (name-checked in The Taming of the Shrew, 1592).
James Joyce could invent words to match those of Tolkien, Carroll or Beckett. The author of Ulysses coined ‘yogibogeybox’ for the paraphernalia carried by a spiritualist, alongside ‘smilesmerk’ (to smile in a smirking, supercilious way) and ‘pornosophical’ (defined in the OED as ‘of or relating to the philosophy of the brothel’).
While the meaning of this word – ‘an ancient Persian dessert of fried and sweetened batter’ – might seem innocuous, what the confection came to mean in the history of desserts was monumental. Brothers Frank and Robert Menches were running an ice cream stand at the 1904 St Louis World’s Fair when they ran out of bowls in which to serve it. A few stands away a Syrian chef named Ernest A. Hamwi was selling zalabiya and, spotting the brothers’ predicament, began rolling his wafers into cones that could then be used to hold a single dollop of ice cream. American inventor Carl R. Taylor was reportedly one of the Menches’ customers – on 29 January 1924, he patented a device for transforming ‘thin, freshly baked wafers, while still hot, into cone-shaped containers’. The ice cream cone was born.
If you would like to comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Culture, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.
And if you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter, called “If You Only Read 6 Things This Week”. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Earth, Culture, Capital and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.